Sadly, many of Hawaii’s best-known jazz musicians have passed away, including Lyle Ritz, Bill Tapia, and Betty Loo Taylor, but they were all probably too swing-based for an experimental improvisor like Alex Zhang Hungtai to mesh well with anyway. Regardless, he finds himself alienated and at loose ends when he returns to his family’s former Hawaiian homeland. However, a Buddhist bed & breakfast might be just the thing to center him in Christopher Makoto Yogi’s’ August at Akiko’s, one of several recent selections from the International Film Festival Rotterdam that streams for a limited time on Festivalscope’s public-facing VOD platform.
Indeed, Zhang (playing a meta analog of himself) learns you cannot go home again, in just about the saddest way possible. However, fate and his mother’s vague recommendation takes him to Masuda Akiko’s Buddhist B&B/hostel/retreat. It turns out the meditation and communion with nature she offers is what his soul needs. He even starts volunteering for community service projects, but he still has some unfinished spiritual business to tend to.
Although Zhang plays half a dozen instruments in half a dozen styles, both under his real name and the monikers “Dirty Beaches” and “Last Lizard,” throughout August he performs on tenor sax in a free improvisational style influenced by Ornette Coleman. Frankly, it is nice to see free jazz get some sympathetic screen time, but it is particularly apt, because Yogi’s patient but sure-handed approach is a lot like the best of avant-garde jazz. At times it feels diffuse and hazy, but it all comes together at the end (which features an arresting performance by Zhang).
Zhang is quiet and moody as his second self, but it is still an effectively sensitive and lowkey performance. In contrast, Masuda is wonderfully charming and all kinds of dynamic (albeit in a mostly quiet way) as herself, more or less. Together, they share an unforced rapport that is pleasant to experience second hand.
Cinematographer Cho Eunsoo fully embraces the picturesque Big Island landscape, but in a deeper way than mere picture postcard visuals. If you stick with it, Zhang’s music is plaintive and devastatingly powerful. Plus, we also get to see the Hilo Taishsoji Taeko Troop in performance, which is a cool bonus.